You guys, I think we need to talk about The Princess And The Frog.
From the beginning, this film has been steeped in controversy. It is the first full production to come out of Disney studios after John Lasseter (Mr. Pixar) jumped on their train and put on his conductor hat. It’s their triumphant return to traditional 2-D animation. It’s the first Disney film with a black heroine. It’s set in the oh-too-recently devastated landscape of New Orleans (albeit during its swinging jazz age), and it features a toothless hillbilly firefly who sounds like a Family Guy parody of Randy Newman. The only non-controversial thing about this picture is that it’s being directed by Ron Clements and John Musker, the team responsible for hits like The Little Mermaid and Aladdin.
And…oh, wait. Everybody hated Treasure Planet.
Okay, I guess that’s controversial too.
With the film’s upcoming release date (December 11th) it’s no surprise that early screenings have the reviewers shouting their opinions at anybody who’ll listen, and hey, guess what? The reviews, at this point, seem to be positive.
Which would be cool if anybody was reviewing the effing movie.
With a film this controversial, it’s predictable that the biggest talking points are its novelties. The quality of the animation, the catchiness of the traditional Disney broadway-style tunes, the enjoyability of its dialogue…all of it is lost in the furor over whether the prince is too white or whether the villain is too black. People are either hailing Disney’s newfound sensitivity or denouncing its lack of it. I’m not saying Ultra Corporation Disney is the leader in equal-rights entertainment, but their announcement of a black Princess has sent the world off its rocker.
Seriously, it was starting to get to the point where I was feeling bad for Disney. With every press release or tidbit of information about the film, society backlashed. It was like trying to watch a kid present a macaroni picture to a tribe of violent apes.
Disney: Hey, everybody! We’re making a new movie! In 2-D! Like the Lion King! You guys liked the Lion King, right?
Disney: And guess what? We’re going to have the first ever African-American Disney Princess!
Disney: That’s right! Her name is going to be Maddie!
Everybody: Mammy? You’re naming her Mammy?
Disney: What? No! MADDIE. MAD. DIE. It’s a traditional name from the era.
Everybody: That’s racist. I can’t believe you have a BLACK CHARACTER, and you’re naming her MAMMY.
Disney: WE ARE NOT NAMING HER MAMMY. MADDIE. CLEAR THE COTTON OUT OF YOUR EARS, AND –
Everybody: Cotton? Cotton, you say?
Disney: Oh, Christ.
Everybody: We demand you change Mammy”s-
Everybody: Maddie’s name. Look, even if it isn’t EXACTLY Mammy, it sounds a lot LIKE Mammy. That’s enough. You’ll have little black girls growing up thinking they have to be nurses to white children and bring dinnuh to massuh and all that. You want to instill this in them, with your racist naming.
Disney: Okay, OKAY. Fine. We won’t name her Maddie, a name that was widely used among girls in the 1920’s. We’ll name her…fuck, let’s just make up a name, huh? Let’s call her TIANA. It sounds like TIARA which is PRINCESSY and you people won’t argue with a MADE UP PRINCESSY NAME.
Everybody: Sounds good to us.
Disney: Can we move on?
Disney: Fine. Jesus. Okay. So Ma…Tiana will live in New Orleans. It’ll be a really rich, jazzy setting full of Creole culture, and-
Disney: Oh. What?
Everybody: Not everybody in New Orleans was Creole you know.
Disney: We know. Not everybody in the movie is Creole.
Everybody: Yes, but you have some very…Creoley characters.
Disney: How do you know?
Everybody: What about that firefly? In the picture? It looks drunk and stupid.
Disney: That’s because the character is stupid. This is unrelated to where it lives and its underlying culture. We also have Creole characters that are not stupid.
Everybody: But that one is stupid.
Disney: Let’s just…okay. We’re just going to move on. So they’re in New Orleans, where Maddie-
Disney: TIANA. Tiana. Where Tiana is the chamber maid to a spoiled debutante –
Disney: WHAT? WHAT IS WRONG?
Everybody: You’re having a black girl be a maid?
Disney: …yes. Just like Cinderella. And Snow White. And seriously, Sleeping Beauty, Mulan, and Belle were all shown doing chores and cleaning and that stuff. The only ones who haven’t really lifted a finger are Ariel and Nala, and they’ve got excuses on account of their not being human.
Everybody: You can’t have a black girl be a maid. Especially a white girl’s maid.
At this point Disney politely excuses itself, goes and takes a shot of Scotch, and returns with their best PR smile and a bit of a nervous twitch.
Disney: Okay. She won’t be a maid. Sorry we were insensitive. TIANA will be an ASPIRING RESTAURANTEUR. Okay? How’s that?
Everybody: Oh, that sounds nice.
Disney: Yes, and we’re going to call it…The Frog Princess!
Everybody: You can’t insult the French like that.
At this point Disney changed the title to ‘The Princess And The Frog’ and declined further press conferences on the grounds that they were out of hard liquor.
You guys, The Princess And The Frog could certainly be considered a pivotal point for Disney. It marks some significant changes, and it’ll be interesting to observe the reactions of the children (being that they are the target audience) and witness the social fallout over the next many years.
But for now, these folks worked really hard on a movie that they thought people would like, and I feel like we have the obligation to watch the movie and make a decision about that before we start analyzing its political implications.
If you go see The Princess And The Frog on December 11th, I would urge you to marvel at the animation, to salute the voice acting and dance to the songs. If at the end of the film you have a little grain of moral outrage in you, go ahead and get that out of your system. By all means, write a critical analysis. Write a cultural thesis and post it everywhere you can, and I will eagerly discuss it with you. There are points of the film that I’m not that pleased about myself, but if we let ourselves become so distracted by all these connotative implications, we fail to recognize good art as what it is. We won’t be able to see the forest for the potentially racist trees, as it were.
Sometimes a Princess is just a Princess, to quote a recent article, and we should let her be a character before she is a color.